History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/II:11

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Chapter 11: Quarrel with Yrujo[edit]

The Louisiana treaty, signed in May, 1803, was followed by two years of diplomatic activity. The necessary secrecy of diplomacy gave to every President the power to involve the country without its knowledge in dangers which could not be afterward escaped, and the Republican party neither invented nor suggested means by which this old evil of irresponsible politics could be cured; but of all Presidents, none used these arbitrary powers with more freedom and secrecy than Jefferson. His ideas of Presidential authority in foreign affairs were little short of royal. He loved the sense of power and freedom from oversight which diplomacy gave, and thought with reason that as his knowledge of Europe was greater than that of other Americans, so he should be left to carry out his policy undisturbed.

Jefferson's overmastering passion was to obtain West Florida. To this end two paths seemed open. If he chose to conciliate, Yrujo was still ready to aid; and Spain stood in such danger between England and France that Godoy could not afford to throw the United States into the hands of either. If Jefferson wished the friendship of Spain, he had every reason to feel sure that the Prince of Peace would act in the same spirit in which he had negotiated the treaty of 1795 and restored the right of deposit in 1802. In this case Florida must be let alone until Spain should be willing to cede, or the United States be ready for war.

On the other hand, the President might alienate Spain and grasp at Florida. Livingston and Monroe warmly urged this policy, and were in fact its authors. Livingston's advice would by itself have had no great weight with Jefferson or Madison, but they believed strongly in Monroe; and when he made Livingston's idea his own, he gave it weight. Monroe had been sent abroad to buy Florida; he had bought Louisiana. From the Potomac to the Mississippi, every Southern man expected and required that by peace or war Florida should be annexed to the Union; and the annexation of Louisiana made that of Florida seem easy. Neither Monroe, Madison, nor Jefferson could resist the impulse to seize it.

Livingston's plan has been described. He did not assert that Spain had intended to retrocede Florida to France, or that France had claimed it as included in the retrocession. He knew the contrary; and tried in vain to find some one willing to say that the country to the Perdido ought to be included in the purchase. He made much of Marbois's cautious encouragement and Tallyrand's transparent manœvres; but he was forced at last to maintain that Spain had retroceded West Florida to France without knowing it, that France had sold it to the United States without suspecting it, that the United States had bought it without paying for it, and that neither France nor Spain, although the original contracting parties, were competent to decide the meaning of their own contract. Believing that Bonaparte was pledged to support the United States in their effort to obtain West Florida, Livingston was anxious only to push Spain to the utmost. Talleyrand allowed him to indulge in these dreams. "I have obtained from him," wrote Livingston to Madison,[1] "a positive promise that this government shall aid any negotiation that shall be set on foot" for the purchase of East Florida; while as for Florida west of the Perdido, "the moment is so favorable for taking possession of that country, that I hope it has not been neglected, even though a little force should be necessary to effect. Your minister must find the means to justify it."

When the letters written by Livingston and Monroe in May, 1803, reached Washington, they were carefully studied by the President, fully understood, and a policy quickly settled. When Jefferson wrote to Senator Breckinridge his ideas on the unconstitutionality of the purchase, he spoke with equal clearness on the course he meant to pursue toward Spain in order to obtain Florida:[2]

"We have some claims to extend on the sea-coast westwardly to the Rio Norte or Bravo, and, better, to go eastwardly to the Rio Perdido, between Mobile and Pensacola, the ancient boundary of Louisiana. These claims will be a subject of negotiation with Spain; and if as soon as she is at war we push them strongly with one hand, holding out a price with the other, we shall certainly obtain the Floridas, and all in good time."

This was not Livingston's plan, but something quite distinct from it. Livingston and Monroe wanted the President to seize West Florida, and negotiate for East Florida. Jefferson preferred to negotiate for West Florida and to leave East Florida alone for the time.

Madison had already instructed[3] the minister at Madrid that the Floridas were not included in the treaty, "being, it appears, still held by Spain," and that the negotiation for their purchase would be conducted by Monroe at Madrid. Instructions of the same date were instantly sent to Monroe,[4] urging him to pursue the negotiation for Florida, although owing to the large drain made on the Treasury, and to the "manifest course of events," the government was not disposed to make sacrifices for the sake of obtaining that country. "Your inquiries may also be directed," wrote Madison, "to the question whether any, and how much, of what passes for West Florida be fairly included in the territory ceded to us by France."

The idea that West Florida could be claimed as a part of the Louisiana purchase was a turning-point in the second [sic] Administration of Jefferson. Originating in Minister Livingston's mind, it passed from him to Monroe; and in a few weeks the President declared the claim substantial.[5] As the summer of 1803 closed, Jefferson's plan became clear. He meant to push this claim, in connection with other claims, and to wait the moment when Spain should be dragged into the war between France and England.

These other claims were of various degrees of merit, and involved France as well as Spain. During the quasi war between the United States and France, before Jefferson came into power, American commerce in Spanish waters suffered severely from two causes. The first consisted in captures made by Spanish cruisers, and condemnations decided in Spanish courts; the second was due to captures made by French cruisers, and condemned by French consuls in Spanish ports, or by courts of appeal in France, without regard to the rights or dignity of Spain. With much trouble, in August, 1802, at the time when Europe and America were waiting for the end of Leclerc's struggle with the negroes and fevers of St. Domingo, Pinckney succeeded in pursuading the Prince of Peace to let the claims for Spanish depredations go before a commission for settlement; but Godoy obstinately refused to recognize the claims for French depredations, taking the ground that Spain was in no way responsible for them, had never in any way profited by them, and had no power at the time they occurred to prevent them; that France, and France alone, had committed the offence, and should pay for it.

Pinckney resisted this reasoning as energetically as possible; but when Cevallos offered to sign a convention covering the Spanish depredations, and reserving the Franco-Spanish claims for future discussion, Pinckney properly decided to accept an offer which secured for his fellow-citizens five or ten millions of money, and which left the other claim still open.[6] The convention of Aug. 11, 1802, was sent to the Senate Jan. 11, 1803, in the excitement that followed Morales's withdrawal of the entrepôt at New Orleans. The Senate deferred action until the last moment of the session; and then, March 3, 1803, after Nicholson and Randolph had appeared at the bar to impeach Judge Pickering, Pinckney's claims convention was taken up, and the nine Federalists were allowed to defeat it by the absence of Republican senators. The majority reconsidered the vote and postponed the whole subject till the next session. Thus, owing to the action of Federalist senators, when Jefferson in the following summer, after buying Louisiana, looked about for the means of buying Florida, he found these classes of claims, aggregating as he supposed between five and ten million dollars, ready to his hand. Monroe was promptly ordered to insist upon treating both classes alike, and setting both of them against the proposed purchase of Florida. "On the subject of these claims you will hold a strong language," said Madison.[7]

A third class of claims could be made useful for the same purpose. Damages had been sustained by individuals in the violation of their right of deposit at New Orleans in the autumn of 1802.

"A distinction, however, is to be made," wrote Madison, "between the positive and specific damages sustained by individuals and the general injuries accruing from that breach of treaty. The latter could be provided for by a gross and vague estimate only, and need not be pressed as an indispensable condition. The claim however may be represented as strictly just, and a forbearance to insist on it as an item in the valuable considerations for which the cession [of Florida] is made. Greater stress may be laid on the positive and specific damages capable of being formally verified by individuals; but there is a point beyond which it may be prudent not to insist, even here, especially as the incalculable advantage accruing from the acquisition of New Orleans will diffuse a joy throughout the western country that will drown the sense of these little sacrifices. Should no bargain be made on the subject of the Floridas, our claims of every sort are to be kept in force."

The President had not then decided to claim West Florida as included in the Louisiana purchase, and he conceived of no reason which should make Spain cling the more closely to Florida on account of the loss of New Orleans.

The news of the Louisiana purchase reached Washington early in July, 1803; Madison wrote his instructions to Monroe at the end of the same month; Jefferson announced his policy to Breckenridge in August. This was the harvest season of his life. His theories were proved sound; his system of government stood in successful rivalry with that of Bonaparte and Pitt; and he felt no doubt that his friendship was as vital to England, France, and Spain as all the armies and navies of the world. In the midst of this enjoyment, September 4, he was suddenly told by the Marquis of Casa Yrujo that he had bought stolen goods, and that Spain as the rightful owner protested against the sale.[8]

Notwithstanding this strong measure, doubtless taken in obedience to orders, Yrujo was still true to his old friendship. On hearing of the cession, he did again what he had done eight months before, in the excitement about the entrepôt at New Orleans,—he tried to smooth difficulties and quiet alarms.

"The ports of Florida," he wrote to Don Pedro Cevallos,[9] "as they would make it easy for us to annoy greatly the American commerce in case of a war, would in like degree furnish the Americans, if the Americans should possess them, the same means of annoying ours, and of carrying on an immense contraband trade from them, especially from Pensacola and Mobile, with our provinces in the Gulf of Mexico. This last is the chief evil which in my opinion will result from the acquisition of Louisiana by the Americans, and can only be diminished by numerous, watchful, and active revenue-cutters. For the rest I do not look on the alienation of Louisiana as a loss for Spain. That colony cost us much, and produced us very little."

In short, Louisiana could not be defended by Spain, while as a part of the United States it would certainly weaken, and probably dissolve, the Union. As for the protest, he told[10] his Government, even before he received Madison's reply, that nothing would come of it.

As late as Nov. 5, 1803, Yrujo continued to write in the same tone to his Government.

"The information I have received from trustworthy persons," he said,[11] "in regard to the disposition in which General Victor was coming here, and the spirit of restlessness and almost of rapine which reigned among many of the officials in his army, leave me no doubt that the military colony of the French in Louisiana would have been in reality a worse neighbor that the Americans for us. Things have now taken such a turn, that in my humble opinion if we are to lose Louisiana, the choice whether that colony shall fall into the power of one nation rather than another is not worth the expense and trouble of a war, provided we preserve the Floridas. . . . I am convinced that this Government knows perfectly the national interests, and to promote them will follow in this respect a course of conduct which in proportion as it better suits our own, should inspire us with greater confidence."

Yrujo acted the part of a true friend to both countries, in trying by such arguments to reconcile his Government to the loss of Louisiana; but there were limits to his good-will. He held that Spain could not afford to part with Florida. Yrujo went to the extreme of concession when he reconciled his Government to the loss of New Orleans, and nothing would reconcile him to the further loss of Mobile and Pensacola. Only on the theory that Spanish America was already ruined by the cession of Louisiana could Yrujo argue in favor of selling Florida.

On receiving Yrujo's protests of September 4 and 27, Jefferson's first feeling was of anger. He sent a strong body of troops to Natchez. "The Government of Spain," he wrote to Dupont de Nemours,[12] "has protested against the right of France to transfer, and it is possible she may refuse possession, and that may bring on acts of force; but against such neighbors as France there and the United States here, what she can expect from so gross a compound of folly and false faith is not to be sought in the book of wisdom." The folly of such conduct might be clear, but the charge of false faith against Spain for protesting against being deprived of her rights, seemed unjust, especially in the mouth of Jefferson, who meant to claim West Florida under a Franco-Spanish treaty which was acknowledged by all parties to have transferred Louisiana alone.

Only a week before this letter was written, the scheme of seizing West Florida had been publicly avowed by John Randolph on the floor of the House. Randolph's speech of October 24, in language as offensive to Spain as possible in the mouth of a responsible leader, asserted, as a fact admitting no doubt, that West Florida belonged to the United States.[13] "We have not only obtained the command of the mouth of the Mississippi, but of the Mobile, with its widely extended branches; and there is not now a single stream of note rising within the United States and falling into the Gulf of Mexico which is not entirely our own, the Appalachicola excepted." In a second speech the next day, he reiterated the statement even more explicitly and in greater detail.[14] The Republican press echoed the claim. Jefferson and Madison encouraged the manœuvre until they could no longer recede, and pushed inquiries in every direction,[15] without obtaining evidence that West Florida was, or ever had been, a part of the government of Louisiana. They even applied to Laussat,[16] the mortified and angry French commissioner whom Bonaparte had sent to receive possession of New Orleans; and Laussat, to the annoyance of Talleyrand and Godoy, told the truth,—that the Iberville and the Rio Bravo were the boundaries fixed by his instructions, and therefore that West Florida was not a part of the purchase, but that Texas was.

Notwithstanding John Randolph's official declaration, when the time came for the delivery of Louisiana the Spanish governor, Dec. 20, 1803, peacefully surrendered the province to Laussat; Laussat handed it in due form to Claiborne; and Claiborne received it without asking for West Florida, or even recording a claim for it. That this silence was accidental no one pretended. The acquiescence in Spanish authority was so implicit that Madison three months afterward, at a time when both Executive and Legislature were acting on the theory that West Florida was in Louisiana, found himself obliged to explain the cause of conduct and contradictions so extraordinary. He wrote[17] to Livingston at Paris that the President had for several reasons preferred to make no demand for West Florida,—

"First, because it was foreseen that the demand would not only be rejected by the Spanish authority at New Orleans, which had in an official publication limited the cession westwardly by the Mississippi and the Island of New Orleans, but it was apprehended, as has turned out, that the French commissioner might not be ready to support the demand, and might even be disposed to second the Spanish opposition to it; secondly, because in the latter of these cases a serious check would be given to our title, and in either of them a premature dilemma would result between an overt submission to the refusal and a resort to force; thirdly, because mere silence would be no bar to a plea at any time that a delivery of a part, particularly of the seat of the government, was a virtual delivery of the whole.

The President's silence at New Orleans was the more conspicuous because, at the moment when the province of Louisiana was thus delivered with such boundaries as Spain chose to define, Congress was legislating for Florida as an integral part of the Union. John Randolph's official assertion that Mobile belonged to the United States under the treaty of cession, was made in the last part of October, 1803, soon after Congress met. About a month later, November 30, he introduced a Bill nominally for giving effect to the laws of the United States within the ceded territory. After much debate and disagreement this Bill at length passed both Houses, and Feb. 24, 1804, received the President's signature. The fourth section directed that the territories ceded to the United States by the treaty, "and also all the navigable waters, rivers, creeks, bays, and inlets lying within the United States, which empty into the Gulf of Mexico east of the River Mississippi, shall be annexed to the Mississippi district, and shall, together with the same, constitute one district, to be called the 'District of Mississippi.'" This provision was remarkable, because, as every one knew, no creeks, bays, or inlets lying within the United States emptied into the Gulf. The Act by its eleventh section authorized the President, "whenever he shall deem it expedient, to erect the shores, waters, and inlets of the Bay and River of Mobile, and of the other rivers, creeks, inlets, and bays emptying into the Gulf of Mexico east of the said River Mobile, and west thereof to the Pascagoula, inclusive, into a separate district, and to establish such place within the same as he shall deem expedient, to be the port of entry and delivery for such district." This section gave the President power of peace and war, for had he exercised it, the exercise must have been an act of war; and John Randolph's previous declarations left no doubt as to the meaning in which he, who reported the Bill, meant it to be understood.

By this time Yrujo was boiling with such wrath as a Spaniard alone could imagine or express. His good-will vanished from the moment he saw that to save Florida he must do battle with President, Secretary of State, Congress, and people. One insult had followed another with startling rapidity. The President's pêle-mêle, of which the story will be told hereafter, wounded him personally. The cold reception of his protest against the Louisiana cession; the captiousness of Madison's replies to his remonstrances; the armed seizure of New Orleans with which he was threatened; the sudden disregard of his friendship and great services; the open eagerness of the Government to incite Bonaparte to plunder and dismember Spain; the rejection of the claims convention in March, and its sudden approval by the Senate in January, as though to obtain all the money Spain was willing to give before taking by force territory vital to her empire; and above all, the passage of this law annexing the Floridas without excuse or explanation,—all these causes combined to change Yrujo's ancient friendship into hatred.

In the midst of the complicated legislation about Louisiana, while the Mobile Act was under discussion, Jefferson sent to the Senate, Dec. 21, 1803, the correspondence about the Spanish claims, and among the rest an adverse opinion which Yrujo had obtained from five prominent American lawyers on an abstract case in regard to the Franco-Spanish spoliations. Madison was particularly annoyed by this legal opinion, and thought it should bring these five gentlemen within the penalties of the law passed Jan. 30, 1799, commonly known as Logan's Act. Senator Bradley of Vermont moved for a committee, which reported in favor of directing the President to institute proceedings against Jared Ingersoll, William Rawle, J. B. McKean, Peter S. Duponceau, and Edward Livingston,—five lawyers whose legal, social, and political character made a prosecution as unwise in politics as it was doubtful in law. The Senate having at the moment too many prosecutions already on its hands, let Senator Bradley's Report lie unnoticed, and soon afterward confirmed the claims convention by a vote of eighteen to eight,[18]—barely two thirds, the least factious of the Federalists joining the majority, and by this unpartisan act causing in the end more embarrassment to the party in power than the most ingenious factiousness could have plotted. Madison, in the midst of his measures for pressing the acquisition of Florida, sent the ratified claims convention to Madrid. The period fixed for ratification had long since expired, and the attitude of the United States toward Florida had altered the feelings and interests of Spain; but either Madison was unaware of the change, or he wished to embarrass Godoy. He added in his letter to Pinckney,[19] "It was judged best, on the whole, no longer to deprive that class of our citizens who are comprehended in the convention of the benefit of its provisions;" but although consenting to take what Spain was willing to give, he spoke with contempt of the Spanish argument against the Franco-Spanish claims, and insisted that these should be pressed without relaxation. He even complained that Yrujo, in taking the opinion of American lawyers, had failed in respect to the United States government and his own.[20]

Madison seemed unconscious that Yrujo could have any just cause of complaint, or that his Government could resent the tone and temper of President and Congress. The passage of the Bill which made Mobile a collection district and a part of the Mississippi territory gave Yrujo the chance to retaliate. About a fortnight after the President had signed this law, Yrujo one morning entered the State Department with the printed Act in his hand, and overwhelmed Madison with reproaches, which he immediately afterward supported by a note[21] so severe as to require punishment, and so able as to admit of none. He had at first, he said, regarded as "an atrocious libel" on the United States government the assertion that it had made a law which usurped the rights of Spanish sovereignty; yet such was the case. He gave a short and clear abstract of the evidence which refuted the claim to West Florida, and closed by requesting that the law be annulled.

Madison could neither maintain the law nor annul it; he could not even explain it away. Gallatin told the President six months afterward,[22] that "the public mind is altogether unprepared for a declaration that the terms and object of the Mobile Act had been misunderstood by Spain; for every writer, without a single exception, who has written on the subject seems to have understood the Act as Spain did; it has been justified by our friends on that ground." Yet Jefferson was not prepared to maintain and defend the Act in its full assertions of authority, after accepting Louisiana without asking for West Florida. Madison wrote a letter of complaint to Livingston at Paris,[23] explaining, as already quoted, the reasons which had induced the President to make no demand for West Florida before ascertaining the views and claiming the interposition of the French government.

"In this state of things," said he, "it was deemed proper by Congress, in making the regulations necessary for the collection of revenue in the ceded territory, and guarding against the new danger of smuggling into the United States through the channels opened by it, to include a provision for the case of West Florida by vesting in the President a power which his discretion might accommodate to events."

This interpretation of the law was not in harmony with the law itself or with Randolph's speeches; but Madison hastened to turn from this delicate subject in order to bring another complaint against Yrujo.

"The Act had been many weeks depending in Congress with these sections, word for word, in it; . . . it must in all probability have been known to the Marquis d'Yrujo in an early stage of its progress; if it was not, it marks much less of that zealous vigilance over the concerns of his sovereign than he now makes the plea for his intemperate conduct. For some days, even after the Act was published in the Gazette of this city, he was silent. At length, however, he called at the office of State, with the Gazette in his hand, and entered into a very angry comment."

The Spanish minister's subsequent notes had been written with "a rudeness which no government can tolerate;" but his conduct was chiefly of importance "as it urges the expediency of cultivating the disposition of the French government to take our side of the question."

The President came to Madison's relief. By a proclamation issued a few weeks afterward, reciting the terms of the Act of Congress in regard to the Bay and River of Mobile, he declared all these "shores, waters, inlets, creeks, and rivers, lying within the boundaries of the United States," to be a collection district, with Fort Stoddert for its port of entry.[24] The italics were a part of the proclamation, and suggested that such could not have been the intent of Congress, because no part of the shores or waters of Mobile Bay, or of the other bays east of Mobile, lay within the boundaries of the United States. The evasion was a divergence from the words of the Act unwarranted by anything in the context; and to give it authority, Jefferson, in spite of Gallatin's remonstrance, declared in his next Annual Message that the Mobile Act had been misunderstood on the part of Spain.[25]


  1. Livingston to Madison, Nov. 15, 1803; State Papers, ii. 573, 574.
  2. Jefferson to Breckinridge, Aug. 12, 1803; Works, iv. 498.
  3. Madison to Pinckney, July 29, 1803; State Papers, ii. 614.
  4. Madison to Monroe, July 29, 1803; State Papers, ii. 626.
  5. Jefferson to Madison, Aug. 25, 1803; Works, iv. 501.
  6. Pinckney to Madison, Aug. 15, 1802; State Papers, ii. 482.
  7. Madison to Monroe, July 29, 1803; State Papers, ii. 626.
  8. Yrujo to Madison, Sept. 4 and 27, 1803; State Papers, ii. 569.
  9. Yrujo to Cevallos, Aug. 3, 1803; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  10. Yrujo to Cevallos, Sept. 12, 1803; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  11. Yrujo to Cevallos, Nov. 5, 1803; MSS. Spanish Archives.
  12. Jefferson to Dupont, Nov. 1, 1803; Works, iv. 508.
  13. Annals of Congress, 1803-1804, p. 415.
  14. Annals of Congress, 1803-1804, p. 440.
  15. Jefferson to William Dunbar, March 13, 1804; Works, iv. 537.
  16. Madison to Livingston, Jan. 31, 1804; State Papers, ii. 574.
  17. Madison to Livingston, March 31, 1804; State Papers, ii. 575.
  18. Journal of Executive Sessions, Jan. 9, 1804.
  19. Madison to Pinckney, Jan. 31, 1804; State Papers, ii. 614.
  20. Madison to Pinckney, Feb. 6, 1804; State Papers, ii. 615.
  21. Yrujo to Madison, March 7, 1804; MSS. State Department Archives.
  22. Gallatin to Jefferson, October, 1804; Gallatin's Works, i. 211.
  23. Madison to Livingston, March 31, 1804; State Papers, ii. 575.
  24. Proclamation of May 30, 1804; State Papers, ii. 583.
  25. Message of Nov. 8, 1804. Annals of Congress, 1804-1805, p. 11.